K. Norlock commented on why we should care that the participation of women in philosophy is lower than in any other humanities discipline, rivaling only computer science, engineering, and physics.
Now I finally have the opportunity to discuss CAUSES of women’s low participation.
Why is philosophy, alone among the humanities, so distant from achieving gender parity in its own ranks?
I must confess to feeling stumped and dispirited when I think about this question. After all, I have always found that my colleagues profess concern, in their courses and published papers, about justice, equality, objectivity, bias, ethics, and the value of reflection.
The gender disparity thus raises another question: why don’t more philosophers care? Since I believe my colleagues’ concern with justice is sincere, I think it must be because they are ignorant of the statistics or because they are ignorant of how to remedy the situation.
Here are some possible causes of philosophy’s persistent male dominance:
- Philosophy is perceived as a masculine pursuit.
- Philosophical style (“the adversary method”) is at odds with women’s conversational style.
- Women lack interest in course content.
- Women are ignorant of what philosophy is and what uses a degree can be put to.
- There is inadequate advising and recruitment, or advising and recruitment targets men more than women.
- There is a lack of female role models.
- There is a hostile social environment (i.e., outright sexism).
It is likely that all of these play a role in perpetuating the disparity in philosophy. But none of them are impossible to address.
For instance, although many people perceive philosophy as having a masculine image, other fields have been successful in changing their masculine image. The life sciences granted women 25% of bachelor’s degrees in 1970 (a lower percentage than in philosophy right now) and reached gender parity in the mid-1990s. Mathematics, too, has increased the proportion of women.
The bright side of philosophy’s obscured image (what is metaphysics, anyway?) is that many people have no preconceived gendered image of what philosophers do, being completely ignorant that there even are professional philosophers.
The problem with causes is that they are tremendously difficult to identify. The good news about solutions, though, is that if tactics and programs confer success, it doesn’t really matter whether a cause is properly identified or not. And since philosophy is lagging behind the academy’s push to include women (lagging by at least 30 years), there is plenty of experience in other fields for us to draw on.